Overcoming challenges at Sunnyside Freedom School 2020

For the last several years, Trinity Moravian Church has been the site for Sunnyside Freedom School. This six-week summer school program is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and organized and run locally by Anthony’s Plot, an emerging ministry in 
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Like most other things in 2020, Freedom School was very different this year! With creativity and dedication, the team behind this remarkable program overcame significant challenges to keep this remarkable program alive and well this summer.

The CDF Freedom Schools program enhances children’s motivation to read and makes them feel good about learning. At the same time, the program connects families to the right resources in their communities. Freedom School students engage in a research-based, multicultural Integrated Reading Curriculum that supports them and their families

This exciting and vibrant program is a mix of school summer camp and Vacation Bible School. There is lots of singing, energetic music in the style the kids like, hands-on learning activities and lots of reading and spelling. Because most of the children in Freedom School are people of color, there is a strong effort to find age-appropriate books that feature black and brown children that look like them – something that often doesn’t happen in traditional school curriculum.

Community leaders ranging from the mayor to the local pastor (me) come each morning to kick off the day reading a story to the children, then answering their questions and learning how to do a little dance with them! The basic program focuses on reading skills but has expanded over the last three years to include STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Last year a genuine rocket scientist taught the children how to build and launch their own rocket, while this year a graphic artist taught a class the principles of artistic design.

But Freedom School also involves lots of “being together” for the staff and kids—something that was suddenly off the table with the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected challenge this year was how to retool Freedom School to keep the children and staff safe and respect the restrictions imposed by the State of North Carolina in “Phase 2,” requiring masks, social distancing, no meetings inside of more than ten.

For a time, it seemed like Freedom School 2020 might not happen. Pastor Russ May, the co-founder of Anthony’s Plot and sort of the “principal” of Freedom School, had to scramble to figure out a new model that would provide the same benefits to the children, yet keep everybody safe. Fortunately, the Children’s Defense Fund leaders provided a lot of resources and advice, and together they were able to create a safe Freedom School for COVID-tide.

Similar to the local schools, the plan was to piece together a mix of distance learning and limited in-person learning. Donors provided funds for iPads for each child; if the children successfully completed the program, they were allowed to keep the iPad. But in a population that is struggling financially, the other daunting issue was facing the “digital divide” – few poor families have broadband internet! Hotspots were purchased to provide internet access for those who did not have it in their home.

The teaching plan was revamped to work over distance learning – not as effective or exciting, but every effort was made to bring the same energy to the online sessions as existed in the in-person sessions. Each class would come into the building once a week to meet in person with the mentor-teacher. The rest of the week, they would meet virtually.

Classrooms were decorated with themes to make the spaces interesting and to place a bit of “learning” on each wall. The in-person meetings were carefully structured so that each child wore a mask, social distancing was observed, and careful precautions were taken to sanitize surfaces between meetings. As most of us have found over the last months, observing these precautions can be very time-consuming, and often get in the way of the way we would normally do things. The mentor-teachers were all very faithful and careful in sanitizing surfaces and keeping kids at social distance, something that requires constant reminders, especially with younger children!

Challenges were constant. As any teacher these days can tell you, one of the main themes that emerged were the constant technical issues. Zoom wouldn’t connect to the audio, someone’s camera wouldn’t work, the internet was sometimes overburdened and dropouts were common. Trinity Moravian Church is wired for high-speed internet access in the office and fellowship hall, where “connected” meetings and seminars are often held, but the signal did not reach reliably to the third and fourth floors, where many classrooms were located. A decision was made to use some of the AT&T hotspots in that area, which worked pretty well until the hotspots reached a data cap and went into “throttling” mode, where the speed is reduced drastically. The slow speed could not accommodate the multiple video streams needed for Zoom. Russ May and Pastor Jackman scrambled to run a temporary cable to the third floor and install a new internet router for those classrooms.

Then halfway through the program, the big challenge dropped out of the blue. One of the college interns tested positive for COVID-19. There were plans in place for this eventuality, but it was one everyone hoped to avoid. The planned emergency procedures were put into effect. All classes went fully virtual, with children isolated at home. Contact tracing checked who had been near to the intern during the previous week. The end result was that the mentor-teacher recovered, and none of the other staff or students contracted the virus.

The big closing program for Freedom School, when certificates and awards are passed out, is a well-attended event usually held in the Reich Fellowship Hall at Trinity. Since that was out of the question, the closing was moved into the parking lot to be held outdoors. To add to an already difficult year, this exciting closing event was washed out at the last minute by one of the worst thunderstorms we’ve had in a long time – roads and yards were flooded, trees were downed and no one with sense was outside. The certificates and awards had to be hand-delivered to each home. It was exciting that with only one exception, all of the students completed the program successfully and were allowed to keep their iPads!

This has been a challenging year for churches and ministries in every way. But Freedom School 2020 is a testimony that the challenges can be overcome—and in that, the values of Comenius and education are living values today!

The Rev. John Jackman is pastor of Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC